H&R Block announced in January that it would offer immigration document preparation services in some of its Texas stores. The business model depended on customers going into the stores, where “trained immigration assistants” would help them use proprietary computer software to fill out the forms.
After barely getting off the ground, though, the tax-help giant has now quietly exited the field, apparently under pressure from the immigration bar, which voiced concern about the new service being the unauthorized practice of law (UPL).
Is H&R Block’s retreat a blow to under-served legal consumers? Or have consumers been safeguarded from potential problems and mistakes caused by non-lawyers?
Over on the e-lawyering blog, Richard Granat wrote “it’s not clear where there is any UPL violation, as the Immigrant Assistants were simply helping users navigate through the software rather than provide any legal advice.” (Granat is a lawyer who also operates two companies that run “intelligent legal form web sites.”)
Granat quoted a report by the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to the AILA’s board of directors, saying the program’s cancellation came after “some quiet diplomacy,” and that the group “will continue to work on this issue with other firms that seem poised to cross the UPL line.”
But do these kind of services cross the UPL line? It might depend where you sit. As prominent ethics commentator Roy Simon points out here, Texas has a 1999 statute that he says exempts “‘software’ and other computer related things” from the definition of legal practice. And in the case of H&R Block’s program, it might have come down to whether “immigration assistants” could stick to advising users solely on using the software, or whether that necessarily also would involve substantive — legal — advice on what to put on the complicated forms.
Making an ill-advised entry on these forms could potentially impact the substantive rights of someone filling them out.
This is hardly going to be the last word in the unauthorized practice wars, but it is an interesting development and possibly points to the next front in the battle.